“The hour of doom” – The Molly Maguire executions in Pottsville on June 21, 1877

The world had its eyes on the Coal Region on June 21, 1877. Newspaper reporters from across the world streamed into prison yards in Pottsville and Mauch Chunk to detail the executions of ten men. These ten were convicted of being “Molly Maguires.”

The date has gone down in history in the Coal Region as the “Day of the Rope” and has been hold with much mystique. Among the best accounts of the day I’ve seen is the following from the pen of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who stood in the mist inside the walls of the Schuylkill County jail on June 21, 1877.

Their reporting touches upon the reasons these men were being executed, with much bias shown against the Molly Maguires. But the remainder of the piece is a blow-by-blow account of the executions of six convicted Molly Maguires: James Boyle, Hugh McGehan, James Carroll, James Roarity, Thomas Munley and Thomas Duffy.

schuylkill-county-prison
The Schuylkill County jail where the executions took place on June 21, 1877

SPECIAL DESPATCH TO THE INQUIRER.

Pottsville, June 21.

Never before has the outraged majesty of the law been visited, with such signal retribution upon the enemies of social order as it has been this day In the unparalleled number of executions within this region. Fears of outlawry and murder had made the secret organization of the lawless element of the mines a power to be dreaded by all law-abiding Citizens, and a common sense of danger to the public welfare seemed to demand the most vigorous and drastic measures for its suppression. The fearful spectacles of to-day hear witnesses to the success with which these measures have been prosecuted, and the awful lesson they inculcate will forever be borne in mind by the reckless and desperate men whose representatives in crime have atoned with their lives for their own misdeeds. The events of the day have made a lasting impression upon this community, and an uneasy feeling of gloom and apprehension is everywhere observable.

 Outside the Jail.

At the first gray dawn of the morning the dull, mysterious-looking walls of the prison became the centre of interest for hundreds of people, many of whom seated themselves upon the steps of houses, the fences in the field, and lined the curbstone of the street in front. A slight dash of rain before eight o’clock was unnoticed by the waiting crowd, and throughout the morning their interest in the melancholy events passing within the prison increased with the accessions momentarily made to their number.

The Witnesses of the Executions.

At half-past eight o’clock the persons entitled to admission were allowed to enter the prison, and for an hour thereafter a stream of visitors continued to pass through the sombre portals. About one hundred and fifty persons in all were present in the jail yard prior to and during the executions, the total being made up of visiting and local officials, physicians of Schuylkill county, members of the juries and a force of deputies selected by the sheriff, and some fifty journalists, representing all the newspapers of Schuylkill county and the leading journals of the great cities. The deputies of the sheriff, including forty of the Coal and Iron Police force, were well armed, and the corridors and circle surrounding the yard were regularly patrolled by them. Mr. Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, and other members of Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, were present in their official capacity.

The multitude of persons admitted at once found their way to the site of the gallows stationed In the jail yard at the further extremity from the public entrance, and here they spent the time discussing In groups, with varying Intensity of feeling, expected details of the coming tragedy, prominent among which were the probabilities of a reprieve for Duffy. A rumor to this effect gained considerable currency, but In the end proved fallacious.

The Last Hours on Earth.

The condemned men were reported to have slept soundly during the night, and at four o’clock nearly all of them had risen. All of them appeared to be in good spirits, and confident of being able to meet their fate with firmness. Carroll remarked that he had never felt better in his life, and the others joined in expressions of like import.

The immediate relatives of several of the men were admitted between the hours of four and six o’clock, and remained until 7 1/2 o’clock, when they took their last farewells. Sobs and lamentations resounded through the corridor at the last moment of parting. The father of Munley, decrepit with age, being too poor to ride, had during the morning walked all the way from Gilberton, 11 miles distant, to see his boy again. Roarity’s wife, brother and two sisters were the last to leave, the brother having been the bearer of a letter from the prisoner’s father in Ireland, just received, urging the son to tell the whole truth, but declaring the writer’s belief in his boy’s Innocence.  

Prior to and throughout the Interval of waiting for the executions the condemned were engaged In devotional exercises, conducted by the following named clergymen, who had volunteered for the occasion: Revs. Daniel I. McDermott, F. N. J. Gately, H. J. Depman, James McGovern, Martin Walsh and Philip Beresford. The men had previously been shaved and becomingly attired, McGehan and Carroll wearing new suits of black, and the others appearing in the best of their limited wardrobes. When in the hands of the barber, the men indulged in good-humored remarks, Boyle cautioning the man not to shave too close, Carroll adding that, as this shave was the last, it ought to be a good one, and Roarity requesting that care be taken not to disfigure his countenance with a cut.

In a private apartment fitted up as a temporary chapel, the men attended mass, the service being twice celebrated, only three of the condemned being present at one time. Each partook of the sacrament, and, having confessed their sins, received absolution and communion. Kate Boyle, a cousin of one of the men, also received communion, offering the sacrament for the benefit of the soul of her relative.

A good breakfast was furnished but was scarcely tasted by any of the condemned, and the remainder of the time was given to prayer and meditation in the company of the priests.

The Enemy in the Camp.

Meanwhile the conversations of the groups in the jail yard became more animated, and the antecedents of some of the throng were descanted upon. One man, who was pointed out as a former prominent member of the Mollie Maguire order, and the predecessor of Jack Kehoe as body-master, was said to be present for the purpose of taking notes and “spotting” the men charged with the preliminaries of the execution.

Boyle and McGehan on the Scaffold.

After two hours and a half of patient waiting the crowd in the jail yard gradually pressed closer to the rope barricade in front of the scaffold, and at ten minutes before eleven o’clock the creaking of the iron gate at the opposite end of the court gave awful note of the nearness of the hour of doom. Two minutes later a mournful procession appeared, headed by Sheriff Werner, and with a quick tread filed down the paved way to the scene of execution. It had been determined that the men would be hanged in pairs, and the first to be led forth were Boyle and McGehan. The members of the procession, besides the sheriff, were his deputy, John Snyder; Keeper of the Prison Moses Inness, and Drs. Salladay, of Pottsville, and Layer, of Tremont; Father Martin Walsh, of Hecksherville, Schuylkill county, walking by the side of MeGehan, and Father Beresford, of Port Carbon, with Boyle, made up the party.

Both the doomed men eyed the gallows nervously as they approached, but gave no indication of unusual trepidation. As they moved along the Catholic mortuary service was read by the priests. Ascending the steps of the nearest of the three adjoining scaffolds the party proceeded to the furthest, where, with the doomed murderers in the centre and the officials surrounding them, the religious service was resumed and concluded. Boyle and his associate gave the responses in firm and audible tones, and both displayed an amount of nerve and self-possession which would have been deemed almost incredible. Each held in his hand a fully-developed red rose, and Boyle occasionally applied his own to his nose, as if to show his utter indifference to the terrible surroundings.

Gallows - Molly Maguires
The gallows inside the Schuylkill County jail used to execute the Molly Maguires on June 21, 1877 (Lehigh University)

McGehan, though equally self-possessed, was more penitent in demeanor. He appeared to fully realize his awful situation, and kept his eyes fixed upon the sky as if more effectually to divert his thoughts from things earthly. The priests kissed the men, and the sheriff shook hands with them, and then Father Beresford whispered a few words to Boyle, to which the latter responded audibly, “I ain’t a bit sorry.”

McGehan Makes a Short Speech.

A hurried conversation in an undertone followed between Father Walsh and McGehan, when the latter turned to the assemblage present and at once began a short address. His remarks were literally as follows:

“Gentlemen: I have nothing to say to yez about my guilt or innocence, nor about them that left me in here, or them that done anything else to me. I only ask for forgiveness of the whole world, if I have done a wrong to them, and that Almighty God may forgive all Christians and all them that he ever created in this world for the sake of forgiving my sins.”

Here the speaker’s voice grew husky with emotion, and apparently fearful of giving way to his feelings, he stopped and again looked upon the broad blue expanse above him.

Boyle Forgives Everybody.

Boyle then addressed the crowd in a strong, clear voice, which betrayed no emotion. He said:

”I have nothing to say gentlemen, only pretty much in the same way; nothing as regards guilt or innocence; I forgive those that put me here; I forgive them from my heart out, and I hope they will forgive me; I forgive all this world.”

McGehan, with a supplicating look Heavenward; here supplemented his remarks by fervently exclaiming, “I have done all that is in my power to save my soul. Anything at all I could do I have done, and, I trust in God, if there is any sin on my soul I have not cleared off! God will make me suffer for it here now. I offer up this death that I have to die to God for the sake of Him to forgive me my sins. I have nothing more to say.”

This concluded the speaking, and, after an awkward pause, the sheriff appearing uncertain as to whether the men had finished, the hand shaking was resumed and adieus were again taken. The pinioning of the limbs of the men then began, strong leather straps being buckled around their legs, and their arms fastened behind them by similar straps. Both men preserved their equanimity wonderfully, McGehan murmuring a half-audible prayer and gazing supplicatlngly above, and Boyle surveying the preparations of his executioners with as much outward indifference as any of the spectators in the crowd before him. The nooses were then carefully adjusted around the necks of the men, McGehan exclaiming, “Lord have mercy on me, Christ have mercy on me!” The large crucifix which had been held before his face by the attending priest was then pressed to his lips, and, as it was removed, his eyes followed it with a pleading expression. The caps were soon over their faces, and the men had taken their last look upon earth.

All on the scaffold immediately descended, and, with as little delay as possible, two of the supports of the platform were removed, and, the signal being given, the rope connecting with the centre support was pulled by some invisible process, and at eleven minutes after eleven o’clock the drop fell and the souls of the murderers had passed from time to eternity. The bodies whirled around as they hung suspended. Boyle’s was the easier death, his body showing but slight muscular contraction, while McGehan gave symptoms of remaining vitality for sixteen minutes after the springing of the trap.

The fall of the drop was four feet six inches, and McGehan’s weight being the heavier of the two, caused the rope to give about six inches. At twenty-eight minutes after eleven o’clock the body of Boyle was taken down, and a few minutes later was followed to the temporary frame receptacle erected in the rear by that of McGehan.

Immediately before they were pinioned the two men cordially embraced, Boyle saying, “Good-by, Hugh,” and McGehan adding, “May we meet in a better world.”  

Roarity and Carroll Executed.

At six minutes past twelve o’clock the second pair of the condemned were led forth to the place of death. Their attendants were those named in the first instance, except as to the clergymen. The pair were James Roarity and James Carroll, the first attended by Rev. M. J. Gately, of Pottsvllle, and the other by Father Beresford.  

A large crucifix was carried by each of the doomed men, and both appeared to be composed and resigned to their fate. They did not tremble or turn pale at the sight of the scaffold, nor were their faces marked by that ghastly, pallor which is ordinarily shown by the victims of long confinement In prison. In the chanting of the mortuary service Roarity occasionally heaved a sigh, and once took his handkerchief to wipe away the tears that seemed to well up into his eyes. He cast hurried, half-supplicating looks upon the throng before him and into the cell windows opposite, occupied by officials of the sheriff. At the close of the religious service he tremulously bade the sheriff “good-by,” and added, “May God bless you.”

Molly Maguires
A contemporary depiction of the men walking to the gallows

Before they were pinioned the men were notified they were at liberty to make any remarks they desired. Roarity was the first to speak, his remarks, though perfectly audible, were somewhat disconnected, and showing something of the severe strain upon his faculties in the fearful ordeal. Boyle and McGehan, unknown to him, were cold in death, but his allusion to them was evidently prompted by the hope that his dying declarations would help to save them as well as Duffy from death. His language was as follows:

Roarity’s Speech

“Well, gentlemen, I want to talk a few words; it is only a few words. I stand to-day before the public, and I must say the truth for them. I don’t know whether they are gone, whether they are to come after me or not. Thomas Duffy has been convicted for giving me ten dollars for the shooting of a man I never saw – shooting him in Tamaqua – until I saw his name in the papers. Thomas Duffy – I hope I am going to meet my Lord, and Thomas Duffy is a man – I won’t say, for fear I might be lying, that I never seen him the third time before I saw him in Pottsville jail, and what can I say for him is this: I never heard him talking about Benjamin F. Yost, nor about the shooting affair, nor anything concerning the thing at all. And, another thing, I may say for McGehan and Boyle, I never asked them to come and shoot Benjamin F. Yost nor any other man. If they are to come after me, let them say so. I am satisfied, and I hope forgiveness from the world, from everybody. I hope they will forgive me. I hope all will forgive me. That’s all I have to say.”

Carroll’s Last Words.

At this point the crowd looked to Carroll, who quietly awaited his fate without betraying any sign or emotion, either of contrition or despair. In appearance he was the most intelligent and dignified of the half dozen murderers, and appeared to realize the hollowness of professions upon the gallows, and appreciated his terrible death hour. Carroll merely uttered with calmness:

“I have nothing to say, gentlemen, only I am innocent of the crime I am charged with.”

Roarity Speaks Again.

Here Roarity broke in again with the remark:

“Well, that is what I forgot. Excuse me, gentlemen, that is, another word. I forgot that I was going to die an innocent man; I forgot to put that in (here the doomed man’s voice grew tremulous); but I hope it is good for me; and as to them that prosecuted me and brought me to this place, I forgive them from the bottom of my heart; I hope God will forgive them and forgive me, too.”

Carroll made no attempt to prolong the remarks apparently interrupted by his associate, but Improved the opportunity, when seizing the proffered hand of the sheriff in a last farewell, to whisper in his ear a few hurried parting words. These, the sheriff subsequently assured the Inquirer reporter, were merely thanks for kindnesses shown him and an assurance of his sincere regard.

Floral Ornaments.

Carroll was the only one of the victims of the day who did not bear upon his person or in his hand a floral ornament of some kind. The lapels of the coats of nearly all the others were thus adorned, that of McGehan having several red and white roses, and that of Duffy a small white rose.

Roarity Speaks a Third Time.

While Roarity was being pinioned, happening to recognize his counsel in the crowd, he suddenly shouted: “Mr. LeVelle, I leave you my blessing, and leave it to all my employers.”

“God bless you, Jim,” responded the advocate.

The attending priests exhorted the men to prayer, and, all the preparations being finally concluded, the trap was sprung and the bodies of the men plunged downward.

After hanging fifteen minutes the physicians declared both men to be dead, and, at the expiration of four minutes more, the bodies were cut down, and deposited with the others in the receptacle erected for the purpose.

Munley and Duffy Executed.

At twelve minutes after one o’clock the solemn cortege again made its appearance at the iron gateway, bringing with it the remaining murderers, Thomas Munley and Thomas Duffy. Father Depman and Father McGovern were the officiating priests.

The rumor of a possible reprieve had probably had the effect of deferring Duffy’s turn to the last, but now all hope had fled. The ghastly pallor of his face showed much mental suffering, in striking contrast with the easy, self-assured deportment of the man at whose side he took his place. The scaffold in the centre of the three was the one selected for this execution, and here the twice-told preliminaries were gone through with. Neither of the men manifested any disposition to make speeches. At twenty-one minutes after twelve o’clock the drop fell, the last of the doomed six had ceased to breathe, and the offended majesty of the law had received due reparation.

The last two of the victims died with but little struggling, and a subsequent examination showed that Munley’s neck had been dislocated by the fall, and his death must have been instantaneous. After hanging fifteen minutes, and all indications of life having fled, the bodies were added to the lifeless remains in the dead house.

The Arrangements Efficient.

The efficiency with which all the details of the execution were carried out elicited many commendations upon the excellence of the sheriff’s arrangements. A feature of these, deserving of special mention, was the admirable manner in which the fact that a prior execution had already taken place was concealed from the condemned.

The nooses of only one of the three scaffolds were visible at one time, and the bodies of the victims and all the accessories of a prior execution hidden from the sight of the doomed men who next succeeded them upon the adjoining gallows.

Removal of the Bodies.

Soon after two o’clock P. M. two conveyances, bearing three coffins, and supposed to contain the remains of Duffy, Boyle and McGehan, were escorted by a guard of special policemen from the prison to the Reading Railroad Depot. A large crowd of men, women and children formed in mournful procession and accompanied the remains along Centre street.

There were indications of an undercurrent of excited feeling all the afternoon, and vague apprehensions of coming danger are frequently heard. The remains referred to were put on board a special train on the Reading road to be conveyed to the late homes of the dead men, where they will be delivered to their families.

This evening the remains of Kelly and Doyle, two of the Mollie Maguires hung at Mauch Chunk, were brought to Pottsville and taken to Mount Laffee, on the outskirts of Summit Hill, the former home of the men.

A large number of the friends and relatives of Carroll, hung here today, have taken charge of his body, escorting it from the depot to his house. Information just received from the neighborhood of his residence is to the effect such is the feeling since the arrival of the corpse – that the people are becoming alarmed at the threats made, and are apprehensive of a riot during the night. It Is more than probable that the wake over the body will be made the occasion for an exhibition of vindictiveness, and possibly serious disturbance. As a precautionary measure additional watchmen have been placed on duty at the collieries In the vicinity.

No definite time has yet been assigned for the funerals of the dead men, but one, if not more of these, will doubtless take place on Sunday. Boyle was well liked in the neighborhood of his home at Mount Laffee, being to some extent a public favorite, and the arrival of his remains at that place will probably result in a public demonstration…

This execution stands as one of the most horrible moments in the history of Schuylkill County. Six men went to their deaths after a trial filled with circumstantial evidence and meddling by corporate influence (the Reading Railroad and the Pinkerton Detective Agency each played starring roles in the courtroom). Fourteen other men were also executed in a wave of Molly Maguire trials and executions.

The scenes captured by the Inquirer reporter on “The Day of the Rope” speak down the ages to us about the horrors on display that fateful day.


Featured Image: Molly Maguires marching to their execution in Pottsville on June 21, 1877


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3 thoughts on ““The hour of doom” – The Molly Maguire executions in Pottsville on June 21, 1877

  1. All these men were framedby Pinkerton men paid to condemn them and stop any unionization of coal miners begin Irish immigrants they had no rights and were innocent coal miners caught up in coal barrens political advantages RIp Mollies

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  2. À tragic part of Schuylkill county’s history ! Without the Mollies big business would still run roughshod over the labor force needed to make progress ! This is the reason why history is so important to learn..so it doesn’t get repeated..!

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